Fronting one of Australia’s most iconic and beloved bands is just one part of Jeremy Oxley’s story.
19 Sep 2013 - 3:56 PM  UPDATED 19 Sep 2013 - 3:56 PM

Sitting here in my room
The whole damn thing is coming down on me

- from 'Happy Man', words and music Jeremy Oxley, 1981

There was a moment in the early 1980s where it looked like the Sunnyboys could go anywhere and do anything. A four-piece power pop outfit formed in Sydney in 1980 by Jeremy Oxley and older sibling Peter and friends Richard Burgman and Bill Bilson, their music – a sophisticated form of garage rock – was a delicious mix of bright sparkle and tough muscle. And sadness. The band's songs were written by Jeremy, who also served as the band's tall, slim, smiling front man, adored for his big grin, soulful voice and lightening fast guitar licks. Still, his tunes – amongst the most famous, the singles 'Happy Man', 'Alone With You' and 'You Need a Friend' – spoke of confusion, loneliness and an unnamed darkness.

I cannot help and I cannot share and I cannot follow
- from 'You Need a Friend', words and music Jeremy Oxley, 1982

The speed of the Sunnyboys' success was extraordinary. Jeremy was prolific and the band gigged often. They went from nobodies to major label players in a little over a year. The first self-titled album released in 1981 was a gold record for Australian music giant Mushroom. Jeremy Oxley would later take a gun and shoot holes in it.

In Kaye Harrison's splendid new documentary film The Sunnyboy, Jeremy Oxley, originally a small town country surfer lad, remembers landing into an inner city pub music scene where the promise of success was lined with frightening dark clouds. “People were broken,” he says. “We spent our time working on the music to prevent us from falling into the pit of darkness.”

By mid-1984, the Sunnyboys announced they were splitting. There were rumours to account for the dissent in the band. Many centred on Jeremy; tales of rock and roll excess and erratic behaviour and craziness. Few knew, even close friends, that Jeremy had – even then – been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was 22 years old. By 1990, Jeremy was in Rozelle Psychiatric Hospital. Peter Oxley would later say it was akin to something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Produced by documentary veteran Tom Zubrycki and directed by Harrison, whose credits include the TV docs Crossing the Line (2005) and The Long Goodbye (2010), The Sunnyboy, as the title implies, is not quite the story of the Sunnyboys (though for the uninitiated, all the salient facts are there, and for fans, the bountiful use of archive and music is blissful). And it certainly isn't a conventional music bio of the risible 'rock and roll casualty' variety.

Instead, Harrison's film is an earnest and heartfelt exploration of the impact of mental illness on one individual and his family. She interviews Jeremy's mum and dad, Jan and Eric, as well as his brother Peter, and close friends and cohorts, all of whom provide moving testimony to a special kind of helplessness in the face of a disease that can arouse pity, terror and frustration.

Still, the film is a long way from being a downer. Indeed, its mood is convivial, warm, and giving. Most of the film's action is built around observing Jeremy Oxley at home with his partner Mary and her two young sons, Kieran and Lachlan. It's a moving portrait and in a way a beautiful romance with Mary, a nurse, acting as both carer and lover all at once. No longer skinny, Jeremy Oxley in middle age has heart trouble, diabetes and is terribly overweight (all byproducts of his illness, says Harrison). His rock and roll life, he says early in the film, is a thing of the past; his creative energies go into painting (often self-portraits). He struggles with recognising his illness.“I'm just as well as I ever was,” he says here on camera. “I'm not a schizophrenic, I'm a Sunnyboy.”

But what ultimately emerges is a tale of optimism, with Jeremy mending fences with both his family and his music. The climax, the Sunnyboys triumphant 'return' gig at the Enmore theatre in Sydney in April 2012, is a blast of raw happiness.

I know it's hard when you have tried,
When the conversations terror, you have tied.
Making out you still don't know,
All I have is alcohol to let me go

- Alone With You, words and music Jeremy Oxley, 1981

Below Harrison talks about the making of the film.

How did the project come about?

I wanted to make a film about mental illness. I was particularly interested in schizophrenia; I think it is perhaps one of the most stigmatised conditions in the community.

A friend told me about Jeremy. Then, he'd been on medication for two years at that time. He was coming back to the family after a long estrangement. I'm always looking for hope in my films and I found that incredibly moving. Schizophrenia is almost always associated with despair and it just seemed to be a story of recovery.

Schizophrenia is described in part (on the Schizophrenia Fellowship Website) as 'a condition characterised by disturbances in a person's thoughts, perceptions, emotions and behavior…it is not one disease but a cluster of diseases.' Why the stigma?

I think the stigma is to do with the fact that the public don't really understand it. It's associated with split personality and violence.

I wanted to find a subtle way for the audience to learn something about the condition… without shoving it down their throat. I would add that in telling a certain story, it's not intended to represent schizophrenia since there are many different kinds of the condition. All I could do is to honour Jeremy's story.

One of the most electrifying moments in the film comes when Jeremy asks you to justify what you are doing, saying “What do you hope to gain from this?”

Schizophrenia is like a separation from reality – that's what the 'schism' in the word means. Making the film is another perspective on Jeremy's life… and that weighed heavily on me. I wondered that what if I got to the end of the film and he felt it didn't ring true to him? So I was constantly talking to him and saying, “This is a film about you and your battle with mental illness,” and, of course, he doesn't believe he has a mental illness. Often he doesn't feel the medication is doing any good.

Indeed, I've read that schizophrenics feel a loss under the effects of therapeutic drugs as the condition 'retreats', so to speak…

He drew so many portraits of himself throughout his life and maybe that was Jeremy trying to hold onto who he was.

How long did it take to make?

Over two years for The Sunnyboy, and for three years I was trying to do something on schizophrenia. I started it in 2010 and we shot in 2011 and 2012. Karen Johnson was the editor and it took twenty-four weeks to get the cut.

For the observational scenes in the house with Mary and Jeremy, I was the only one there operating the camera and sound.

My main priority in making the film was that it wouldn't bring harm to Jeremy.

Can you explain that?

I find the process is as important as the product; I don't want to go out and get a fantastic entertaining film which just leaves the people who gave their all for it damaged in any way. If anything, I'd like the process to be helpful if it can be.

The film adds a whole new perspective to the Sunnyboys 'rock and roll rise and fall myth'. Were you a Sunnyboys fan?

I was! In Year 9! I don't think people attributed Jeremy's behaviour to mental illness. He was seen as a ramped up version of what was common [amongst rock and rollers] and the industry at the time and it was excused [and perhaps overlooked]. This aspect of the story was difficult to cover for the film since at every point in the narrative I wanted Jeremy's voice to be there.

So instead we see how it impacted on, say, Peter and his family. That's very effective.

That's right. I kept it in the family as a personal story. I wanted to go beyond the stories about wrecking shows and drunkenness and find out why he was doing that from his point of view.

The film offers a whole new insight into Sunnyboys' lyrics. A big part of the film has to do with sibling rivalry and sibling love, too…

I thought the lyrics and songs were a great storytelling device. They speak to his relationship with Peter and how he was feeling at the onset of his illness.

He was in a lot of private personal pain and people thought they were 'just songs'.

I think he felt bombarded. I think he was frightened. I think he was hypersensitive to those feelings of love and hate due to his illness. He is strongly affected by the pain and suffering in the world, that was what in part prompted 'Trouble In My Brain', which has the line, “everyone around us is going insane”.

The Sunnyboy is doing a series of special screenings including Q&As. This weekend the film will appear in Adelaide and Sydney, with programs in Murwillumbah, Perth, Melbourne and Canberra to follow. For details click here.